Person of the Week
Clara Miller: Home Sweet Home
Middlesex Habitat for Humanity has a strong ally in Essex’s Clara Miller. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Let’s start this story with a quiz about the Wizard of Oz: What does Dorothy say when she wakes up in her bed in Kansas after her adventures in the land of Oz? Remember? It’s “There’s no place like home!”
Clara Miller of Essex is involved in making homes but not in fairy tales. She is a volunteer for Middlesex Habitat for Humanity (HH) working to build and renovate structures for families that meet HH’s qualifications for ownership.
“Volunteers are the backbone of Middlesex HH. We are able to do what we do because of volunteers,” notes Sarah Bird, the executive of the group.
In all, Middlesex HH has completed 15 homes in Middlesex County. At the moment, the group is building a house in Westbrook, renovating a house in Middlefield, and is in the early design phase of a project in East Hampton.
Several of Middlesex HH’s builds are designated for veterans, either a family or an individual. A now-completed project in Portland was the first veteran’s home and the current project in East Hampton is as well.
For Clara, the veteran’s projects have a special significance because her late husband Alan was a retired Coast Guard officer.
When she started as a volunteer, Clara wasn’t at all sure that she had the skills she needed for a HH project but received encouragement from the staff and other volunteers.
“They told me just to come with overalls and enthusiasm,” she says, “They said that there would be plenty of experts involved so I didn’t have to worry.”
Clara started by passing nails to a worker on top of the roof and she has since done everything from caulking around a sink to helping tile a bathroom. In a project in Portland, she used what seemed to her a particularly large saw cutting some woodwork.
“It was a learning process,” she says.
But there was an unexpected benefit. Now, she looks around her house and sees projects that she feels she now has the skill to tackle on her own.
“I look at the house and think, ‘I can fix that,’” she says.
According to Clara, the real benefit of working on a HH project is emotional.
“Helping a family build a dream home; that is the reward,” she says.
Volunteering is a regular part of Clara’s schedule. She also volunteers at the Shoreline Soup Kitchen dinners at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Essex.
“It’s again that same feeling; I am so happy to help,” she says.
Several of the diners speak Spanish, and Clara, a native of Barcelona, makes a special effort to talk with them,
She has also volunteered for FISH, Friends in Service Here, an organization that drives people who need transportation to medical appointments. She has missed doing it during the present COVID-19 restrictions. Clara points out that the ride gives people, who often live alone, a chance for some conversation.
“When I am driving, they are telling me this and that, and I think ‘This person could be my mom’ and someday, I might need a ride too,” she says.
Clara met Alan when he was stationed in Spain. She was 18 and spoke Spanish and French but no English. She still knew no English when, now married, she and Alan returned to the United States.
Her most effective language teacher was television. She watched cartoons. Donald Duck, she recalls, was a challenge. The quack in the character’s voice made it difficult to understand. But Mickey Mouse was fine.
“You could associate the pictures with what was happening,” she says.
She also watched series popular at the time like The Waltons.
“Oh my goodness, we were so innocent,” she says when she thinks of the program.
She spoke Spanish to her two children, though her husband never became proficient. When they visited her family in Spain, her mother spoke Catalan, the version of Spanish around Barcelona; her father, who came from Madrid, spoke Castilian and Clara translated it all for Alan.
“Quite a dinner table,” she says.
Clara has worked for some years as a substitute Spanish teacher in Region 4 schools and also done private tutoring.
“I’d get someone who realizes ‘Oh my gosh, I have to pass this test. Can you help me, senora?’” she explains.
In 2004, Clara and Alan took a hike—a very long hike, nearly 500 miles. The followed the famous pilgrim route from Spain, through the Pyrenees to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela to the Cathedral of St. James. They walked on average 14 miles a day and stayed in hostels with other pilgrims.
They carried a change of clothes in their backpacks and “plenty of underwear,” says Clara. They washed things out every night.
“You realize you can get along with very little,” she says.
Recently, she went camping by herself. The isolation of COVID-19 had affected her.
“I was a bit down so I took my golden retriever and went to Vermont for four days. It was cold and raining but it lifted my spirits,” she says. “
One of the things that is important to Clara in working for HH is that providing homes for deserving families is something that always lifts her spirits.
“Sometimes I think it is so nice here [in Essex] that we are living in a bubble. The town is so beautiful; the people are nice; outside of this bubble it is not always like this,” She says. “That’s the nice part of volunteering for Habitat. It is bringing people a better life.”
For more information on Middlesex HH, visit Middlesexhabitat.org. For more information on Shoreline Soup Kitchens and pantries, visit shorelinesoupkitchens.org.